Mass Culture as Mythology

In this riff on Roland Barthes, Sam Anderson nails the anti-essence of his critical stance:

Barthes’s basic idea (although with Barthes it’s always dangerous to reduce things to a basic idea) was that the operation of mass culture is analogous to mythology. He argued that the cultural work previously done by gods and epic sagas — teaching citizens the values of their society, providing a common language — was now being done by film stars and laundry-detergent commercials. In “Mythologies,” his project was to demystify these myths….

[W]hat angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent.

Pretend that complex things are simple. Assert that the puzzling is obvious. Infer that the local is universal.

Who does this? Aside from the usual political suspects, some guilty parties include:

— Apostles of Neoliberalism

— Vicars of Institutional Religions

— Devotees of Fundamentalist Faiths

— Evangelists of Scientific Atheism

— Diviners of Evolutionary Psychology

— Prophets of Mass Marketing

The next time you hear that some visible or invisible order of things is “natural,” remind yourself that it isn’t. Although Barthes wrote Mythologies in 1957 (now available in a newly translated and complete edition), we have a long critical ways to go.

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